The Timmins Wakepark is riding a wave of success. It’s raising the profile of a growing sport in a public way and exposing young Timmins residents – and tourists – to an exhilarating recreational activity that can raise one’s body and soul to new heights.
Wakeboarding is like a cross between snowboarding and waterskiing. The participant’s feet are strapped to a board, which they use to sail over the water. All the while, they’re holding onto a line that’s connected to another line that is moving between two towers. They can sail up ramps or jump over objects in the course, like a skateboarder in a skatepark.
The Timmins Wakepark has been offering this sport on Gillies Lake since 2014 on property that’s part of the Gillies Lake Conservation Area. The park is off Highway 655 just north of Algonquin.
Being in a visible spot, where drivers can see the wakeboarders, has helped to raise the profile of the business, said Johny Bonney, who co-owns the business with his brother, Justin.
The two went through a long process to open the park, but the venture has worked out well. They see a steady stream of customers from the time they open, around May Run, to the time they close in September. The Bonney brothers, both certified wakeboard trainers, have helped all kinds of people try it, from kids as young as five, to people in their 60s.
“There’s a sense of freedom to wakeboarding,” said Johny, when asked to explain what makes the sport so special. “You’re just out there; you're gliding along the water. It’s a pure feeling. I guess you could say it’s zen-ish.”
The line that moves along the cable which connects the two towers is motorized and controlled by a staffer. This allows the park to cater to customers of different abilities. It can go really fast, or really slow. The course is 180 metres long in one direction.
The brothers train first-time users on how to do it, but they say it’s not hard to catch on. The line can pull the wakeboarder upwards to the surface, so they’re not stuck in the water.
Once the participant has a feeling of how to stay afloat, they’re taught how to ride straight, how to control the edges and other tricks of the trade.
Johny said their most prominent demographic is kids between ages nine and 14. Watching them learn the sport is a thrill.
“You can feed off these kids’ energy,” he says. “They’re excited, they’re pumped. That never gets old for us."
The brothers, both in their 30s now, developed a love for outdoor activities while growing up in Timmins. Johny was a snowboarder and Justin was a water-skier. As they got older and gained chances to travel the world, they learned that wakeboarding was popular in other countries, particularly in European countries.
They also saw that the sport, while still far from mainstream, was developing a niche following in Ontario. They made plans to open a park in Timmins but learned that some unique challenges were ahead of them. Such a business would require them to operate and build infrastructure on land that they didn’t own. They ended up working with the Mattagami Region Conservation Authority, which oversees Gillies Lake Conservation Area. After months of dogged work, the brothers formed a partnership with the group to open the business as part of a two-year pilot program. It was successful enough that they were able to go forward on a permanent basis.
Johny said that an important selling point of wakeboarding is that it’s not damaging to the environment. It doesn’t require a boat, so no gas is being added to water. They also believed, and eventually convinced the proper officials, that the park could help Timmins economically and help showcase it as a fun city, with cool recreational activities, while not damaging the environment or causing excessive noise. The business had to be planned carefully, since Gillies Lake is a public jewel that needs to be used and preserved responsibly.
“We get a lot of tourists,” he said. “People come to Timmins to visit their family or participate in a sport tournament and they discover us. They’re like ‘wow, this is amazing.’”
The park now offers a variety of rates for customers, based on how often they want to wakeboard. A youth season pass with equipment provided is $459.99, but is $100 less if the user is providing their own equipment.
There’s also a much less expensive monthly pass option and a one-off fee to ride the course is $25. In June, the park is open Wednesdays through Sunday, but by July, when more staff are available, they’re usually able to be open more often.
Now that the park has been open for nearly a decade, the brothers are seeing kids grow up with the sport. Johny said it’s rewarding for him to see kids who he once knew as toddlers now old enough to try the sport with their older family members. Some of their regular customers are now competitive wakeboarders, too.
One Timmins teenager. Brooke-Lynne McGinn, won gold in her age group at the 2021 Canadian national wakeboard championships in Orangeville.
Johny said it was a huge thrill to witness that, given that she learned the sport in Timmins. There may be more great athletes in the future. Johny mentioned that, in wakeboarding circles, there’s a belief that the sport will soon become an Olympic sport.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when,” he said. “We would like to see the sport continue to grow. We’ll do whatever it takes.”